Madeika Vercella didn’t know any of the people sitting in a circle with her at her first Woke Words workshop. Using cut-up magazines and books, she was supposed to create an identity collage to show the other women and girls where she came from and where she wanted to be.
In the piece she created last fall, Vercella included the phrase, “Home is where my feet go.” Now, 10 months and many Woke Words meetings later, Vercella said the group has become another home for her.
“At least in Utah, I don’t know that many other writers of color, especially women of color,” said Vercella, 20.
Utah is becoming more diverse, but the state’s population is still predominantly white. As a Haitian American woman living in Salt Lake City, Vercella said she’s felt alone in her passion for reading and writing. Woke Words helped her find “a really great and special place for me to talk to other women my age” with the same interests, she said.
Becky McFalls-Schwartz, YWCA Utah’s director of development, knows the feeling.
“Last summer, I was having a conversation with Naja Pham Lockwood, founder of RYSE Media and Gamechanger Films. We were talking about her daughter’s interest in creative writing and my niece’s interest in creative writing. And I just started thinking about how when I was their age in high school, we did not read even one author of color, that I can remember,” McFalls-Schwartz said.
So, the two brainstormed an idea to create a program “that focused on writers of color, for writers of color.” Their idea became Woke Words.
“Our mission [at the YWCA] is to eliminate racism and empower women,” McFalls-Schwartz said. “And it’s really important, therefore, to be able to hear the voices of people of color in order to try and strive for that mission.”
Starting last September, 12 girls and women, ages 15 to 25, met for three hours once a month at the YWCA in Salt Lake City. They chose that age group, combining high school and college students, so the older women could also be mentors as they created this community, according to McFalls-Schwartz.
They began each meeting with a dinner prepared by a chef from Spice Kitchen Incubator, an International Rescue Committee project in Salt Lake County that helps refugees and immigrants interested in starting a food business.
“I think it’s really important for people to eat together and just kind of catch up on your week,” McFalls-Schwartz said.
After their meal, they discussed the book selected for that month. The first one they read was “I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter,” a young adult novel by Erika Sánchez. They’ve also read short stories by Zadie Smith in “Grand Union,” Thi Bui’s illustrated memoir “The Best We Could Do” about coming to the U.S. as a Vietnamese immigrant, and poetry by Fatimah Asghar about navigating contemporary America as a young Pakistani Muslim woman in “If They Come For Us.”
Reading books written by women of color about protagonists who are also women of color is “really cool,” said Sarah May, a Salt Lake City artist who’s helped coordinate Woke Words during the summer. “We can each see a part of ourselves” in them, she said.
Woke Words facilitators, who are doctoral students or are involved with the communications and English departments at the University of Utah, choose the book and theme they want to focus on each month. They try to explore a different genre each time.
Facilitators also prepare an activity focused on a different art form, such as photography, music, painting or film. When the groups discussed Joy Harjo, an Indigenous poet, May helped participants create “erasure poems.” May brought old books that they ripped pages out of and painted over words, leaving the letters that they wanted for their poem uncovered.
Each workshop also has a writing component. After reading “I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter,” the women were asked to write about how it feels to “be in the in-between space in society” and not “really fit in any identity,” said Kianee DeJesus, of Salt Lake City. It was an “incredible” and “beautiful” experience, the 25-year-old said.
“We had like an hour to write, and we wrote masterpieces,” she said.
Group coordinators originally planned to hold an event at the YWCA for the participants to share the work they’d created with the public. But they weren’t able to do that because of social distancing guidelines implemented when the coronavirus pandemic hit, McFalls-Schwartz said.
Instead, the group has met virtually through Zoom over the past few months as COVID-19 spread in Utah. They can’t have their monthly meals together anymore, but May makes sure they can still do their activities. She prepares art supplies — quality markers, pens and paper, magazines, glue sticks and scissors — along with their monthly book, for participants to either pick up or have dropped off at their homes.
“We definitely prefer to meet in person,” May said, but it’s been reassuring to see that this space they created together has continued to thrive. “It’s been really beautiful to see the power in that and how even if we’re not meeting all together … we have something to look forward to, and we know that we have a community that we can reach out to,” she said.
DeJesus said she thinks it’s important to have this “safe space” where people can be vulnerable and share their experiences. May said there’s a “sacredness” among the group.
When you go to school or live in a community where you don’t see yourself represented or your story being told, “it feels hard to fully be yourself,” May said. For her, some of the group’s most powerful moments have been seeing “people awakening and realizing they have a voice and what they have to say does matter and is important.”
One day, May hopes that Woke Words becomes “one of many spaces like this.”